13 Of The Most Famous British Rock Bands Of The 1980s

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

The 1980s was a golden age for rock music, and many incredible bands emerged from the United Kingdom during this decade.

From the hard-hitting sounds of Iron Maiden and Def Leppard to the more pop-oriented tunes of Duran Duran and The Police, British rock bands dominated the airwaves and set the stage for the genres that would follow.

In this post, we’ll take a look at 13 of the most famous British rock bands of the 1980s, exploring their unique styles and contributions to the world of rock.

Whether you’re a diehard fan or just discovering these bands for the first time, this list is sure to get your head banging and your heart racing. Let’s dive in!

1. The Smiths

The first band on our list is a true icon of the ’80s: the incomparable quartet known as the Smiths. They formed in 1982 in Manchester and had their dramatic breakup in 1987, releasing four albums during the period.

The most successful album was the #1 smash hit Meat Is Murder, but the Smiths’ most famous song, “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out,” debuted in their third album, The Queen Is Dead.

Although the Smiths burned bright and faded fast, they made a permanent imprint on the British rock scene, paving the way for groups like Oasis and solo careers for the band’s members, notably Morrisey.

2. The Cure

West Sussex band The Cure wasn’t created in the 1980s, but they helped define it. Though the band formed in 1978, two of their biggest albums, Standing by a Beach and Disintegration, came out in 1986 and 1989, respectively. 

More than that, they were an immense stylistic influence on other musicians, helping to define the emerging subculture of goth. Their hair alone spawned a million highly emotional imitators!

If you’re looking to channel your inner goth kid, make sure to queue up “Just Like Heaven,” “Pictures of You,” and “A Forest” in your playlist.

3. Queen

It might seem incredible that Queen only holds the third spot on our list. After all, if there is one band that sticks in the cultural memory of the 1980s, it’s this one. 

Queen’s epic career began in 1970 in London, and while some of their most iconic tracks came out in that first decade, many of their explosive stadium rock songs came out in the ’80s. On top of that, one of Queen’s defining moments, the Live Aid concert, happened during this decade.

Want to listen to something besides “Bohemian Rhapsody?” Check out “Radio Ga Ga,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” “I Want It All,” “Under Pressure,” and many, many more.

4. The Clash

Formed in London in 1976, The Clash spent the second half of their tenure in the 1980s, and during that time, they continued their work as pioneers in the world of music.

In fact, you can thank The Clash for U2, Bad Religion, Green Day, Public Enemy, M.I.A., and the Arctic Monkeys. The band was a huge inspiration for these artists.

If you’re interested in tracing that influence directly, check out their suite of influential ’80s songs, including “Rock the Casbah” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” the latter of which enjoyed a revival after it appeared in season one of Stranger Things.

5. Tears For Fears

Another defining group of the 1980s was Tears for Fears, perhaps best known for their 1985 synth-pop hit “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”

Fittingly, the group changed its character just after the ’80s, when founders Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith had a dramatic breakup (though, thankfully for the world, they reconciled about ten years later).

During the ’80s, Tears for Fears released three smash-hit albums, The Hurting, Songs from the Big Chair, and The Seeds of Love. Give their discography a listen when you’re in the mood for some synthesizer-heavy hits that’ll make you feel like a dancer drenched in neon lights.

6. The Kinks

It might sound surprising to think of The Kinks as an ’80s band, but you’d be wrong if you consigned the superstar group to the ’60s section of the record store. 

In their prestigious 33-year career, The Kinks released a whopping 28 albums, and of that number, six came out in the ’80s. Within these albums, they released hit songs like “Come Dancing,” “Destroyer,” and “Don’t Forget to Dance,” which remain eminently listenable to this day.

One of the many reasons to appreciate The Kinks’ ’80s oeuvre is the songwriting, often credited to guitarist-songwriter Ray Davies. He remained The Kinks’ leading voice throughout their career, and his work in the ’80s took an interesting tenor, especially when he brought real-world traumas to the table.

7. King Crimson

Progressive rock bands are nothing if not eclectic, and King Crimson wears the crown of British strangeness. The group is especially interesting in that they had five separate tenures. Indeed, even though they last broke up 53 years after they formed, they’ve only been together for a little over half that time.

The 1980s iteration of King Crimson, together between 1981 and 1984, released three albums and drew inspiration both from contemporaneous post-punk and from more experimental influences.

Those influences ranged from pointillism to Javanese gamelan music. Although their earlier period might be more well-known, songs like “Elephant Talk” and “Matte Kudasai” are well worth the listen.

8. The Police

Consisting of Sting, Andy Summers, and Stewart Copeland, The Police were one of the defining groups of British New Wave, a period well-known for its simultaneous appeal to popular audiences and its use of more experimental techniques.

Forming in 1977, the Police made it big in the 1980s’ so-called Second British Invasion, finding particular success with albums Zenyatta Mondatta, Ghost in the Machine, and their final release, Synchronicity.

The latter record included the song that is undoubtedly the Police’s most well-known tune: “Every Breath You Take.” If you’ve seen Top Gun even once, you know exactly what we’re talking about.

9. Iron Maiden

Shifting from punk and prog-rock to a harder kind of tune, we arrive at number nine on our list, Iron Maiden. While the legendary group formed in 1975, there’s no doubt that the ’80s was their decade.

During this time, they released seven studio albums, including the hugely influential 1982 The Number of the Beast, in which Iron Maiden blended hardcore metal stylings with the more esoteric influences of progressive rock. 

The Number of the Beast was particularly noteworthy for the cover art and lyrical references to Satanism—which is pretty much a badge of honor for any heavy metal band.

10. Judas Priest

Tenth on our list, Judas Priest belongs to a more recognizably modern type of hardcore band: they had loud music, loud outfits, and loud personalities.

While Judas Priest formed in the ’70s, they found their sound and success in 1980 with the release of British Steel. From there, they rose to immense global success and critical acclaim, releasing albums whose musical quality was only matched by their cover art. Highlights include “Breaking the Law,” “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’,” and “Turbo Lover.”

The other noteworthy element of Judas Priest is their temperamental roster: the band has had 21 members, of which 10 were drummers. Only two, Ian Hill and Glenn Tipton were present for every iteration of the band.

11. Duran Duran

Moving back into the realm of pop, we have Duran Duran. If you need any evidence that the band is a true icon of the 1980s, consider the B-52s/Bowling for Soup hit “1985,” which mentions the group by name.

It’s not an understatement to say Duran Duran spearheaded the Second British Invasion, creating an explosion of pop mania that rivaled the widespread Beatles fandom of the 1960s.

They dropped five albums during the period—the first three hitting top three of the charts—with hit songs like “Hungry Like the Wolf,” “Girls on Film,” and “Rio.”

12. Genesis

The penultimate on this list is Genesis. The band was Phil Collins’s first significant group and gained widespread popularity when they were featured in the famous American Psycho monologue.

Though the band had their start in the late 1960s and was already a household name by the time 1980 rolled in, Genesis still continued considerable success during that decade.

They released four albums during the ’80s, and tunes like “Invisible Touch,” “Land of Confusion,” and “That’s All” all had a significant impact on the music scene.

13. Fleetwood Mac

Lastly, we have the first group on our list to be of mixed nationalities: Fleetwood Mac. Its founding members were three-fifths British (Mick Fleetwood and John and Christine McVie) and two-fifths American (Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks).

The band released just two albums, Tango in the Night and Mirage. That said, their story in the 1980s is much more about internal drama.

While the group first began to crumble in the ’70s (Rumours has been called an album made by and for people in failing relationships), the ’80s saw the release of two albums, with 1987s Tango in the Night UK and Sweden charts. It also saw the departure of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks from the band.

Summing Up Our List Of 1980s British Rock Bands

As you can see, the 1980s was a decade that saw the rise of many iconic British rock bands. The British music scene was thriving from new wave to heavy metal to pop-rock.

These bands played a significant role in shaping the sound and style of British rock music during the decade, and they continue to be celebrated by fans around the world.

That’s it for our post on the best of British rock bands from the ’80s. We hope you enjoyed reading it as much as we enjoyed researching and writing it.

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Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.